Climate Change May Help Us- But Not Define Us

November 15, 2007



It was all climate change, all the time – 24/7 as they say. SEJ's 17th annual conference, at Stanford University Sept. 5- 9, was a veritable smorgasbord, an unending feast, for those on the climate change beat. But only for those who actually wanted that particular diet, you understand. Dozens of ostensibly unrelated environmental issues – as well as the delicious "tools of the trade" sessions on new media and like – were addressed at the conference.

In the summer 2007 issue of this same newsletter, SEJ President Tim Wheeler, of the Baltimore Sun, wrote philosophically on the subject of a potential name change for SEJ ( ). It's not an entirely new idea, and it's still not clear where, if anywhere, it will or should go. But as SEJ, like any maturing organization, continues to define and redefine itself in a rapidly changing media environment, it's an important one.

The notion was broached at the SEJ board of directors' business meeting at Stanford, but it didn't appear to generate a whole lot of buzz among the members at large.

All the same, judging from the Stanford meeting, one might imagine something along the lines of "Society of Climate Change Journalists."

Let's hope not. Climate change for the past couple of years now has been commanding a reasonably fair share of the media's too-few air time and column inches available for reporting on the environment. And that's a good thing.

But alas – as sweeping and profound as the implications of climate change may be – there is more to the environment and to environmental journalism than "just" climate change.

The climate change goodies at the Stanford conference included a first-ever full-day "forum" for some of the nation's top news executives and an all-star list of climate scientists, experts, and economists. While most conference attendees were still en route from around the country, SEJ had teamed with the Metcalf Institute for Marine & Environmental Reporting, housed at the University of Rhode Island's Graduate School of Oceanography, to invite the editors and faculty. (Hosted by Stanford, the Sept. 5 "News Executives Forum" was underwritten by grants from the Heinz Family Philanthropies and the Yale Project on Climate Change, in the case of SEJ, and from The Energy Foundation, in the case of Metcalf.) With a morning focus on the underlying "consensus" science showing that the Earth is warming and that human activities are a major contributing factor in that warming, the afternoon emphasized impacts and economics – can we afford to address the challenges and seek out the opportunities? Can we afford not to?

World-renowned climate experts – including Ohio State glaciologist Lonnie Thompson, Stanford's Steve Schneider and Terry Root, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory's Ben Santer, and the Rocky Mountain Institute's Amory Lovins – made up the star-studded faculty, eclipsed perhaps only by an equally celestial group of executive editors. (See cover story.)

It was a first for SEJ and, it now appears, a first also for prominent executive editors. But how did it, in fact, go?

Keep in mind I was directly involved in planning this meeting. But what matters most is how the invited editors – and also the invited scientists – think it went. One can say this for sure. There are things we could have done better, this cohesive planning committee that had labored over a year for this particular day. To wit:

• When we initially planned the editors' forum more than a year ago, we envisioned emphasizing only the science of climate change. The issue over just that short time had moved so fast that even editors were showing signs of "getting it" on the science. We refocused to include impacts, adaptation, energy implications, and economics. If we were to do another workshop along these lines, we'll focus much more on the "solutions" and less on the underlying science, now that there's growing recognition (even among editors!) of the scientific backing.

• A few – not too many – of the scientists lapsed into instances of their own jargon. "PNAS," we had to inform editors, referred to the peerreviewed journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Word is that two editors were overheard complaining in the restroom that they wished people didn't use the term "coefficients" in addressing editors (or many reporters!). Another top editor allowed that at a few points the scientific jargon "left me cold."

• There were some concerns about the scientists discussing upcoming studies and analyses which, at the time, were embargoed. The editors wanted more here than they could then get.

• At least one of the faculty's presentations came across as being highly technical, excessively procedural…and in some cases flat-out in error. It helped here to have a knowledgeable science reporter, AP's Seth Borenstein, in the room to help complement the editors and set things right.

The ball now is in the court of SEJ and other journalismminded groups. The door finally is opened, at least a bit, to closer and deeper collaboration with top executive editors, something that has been a long-time "dream," to use SEJ leaders' terminology, for the organization. You'll read elsewhere in this and, one hopes, upcoming SEJournals, about those next steps and the road toward implementing them.

For now, those of us – and there were many – involved in planning and conducting the News Executives Forum can bathe only briefly in the glow of what in many ways appears to have been a substantial success. What we can't afford to do is rest on our laurels. The issues are too big, and the challenges facing responsible journalism and a warming world too daunting, to be overly self-congratulatory. Let's get on with it.

Bud Ward is a co-founder of SEJ. 

**From SEJ's quarterly newsletter SEJournal, Fall 2007 issue.